Citing need for stability, Weare renews part-time police chief’s contract

  • Weare police Chief Sean Kelly —Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 6/23/2017 11:23:21 PM

Members of the Weare select board say they want a full-time police chief, but decided to go with their part-time chief a little longer.

The board voted to renew police chief Sean Kelly’s contract for another two years while giving him a $6,000 raise, bringing his pay up to $90,000 a year, according to select board chairman Tom Clow.

Despite the desire for a full-time leader, the police department is not quite ready for a change in command with several lawsuits still pending against the town and police officer positions to be filled, Clow said.

Kelly, a former Durham police officer, is limited to 32 hours a week or risks losing his $54,000 annual state pension. Kelly lives in Lebanon, Me., and the town provides him with a car to commute.

The town plans to start looking for a full-time replacement in April 2019. Clow said the town’s need for a full time chief means Kelly’s stay won’t be indefinite, despite the progress he has made in the department, including getting the department accredited and and overhauling its policies.

“He’s too expensive,” Clow said. “As you know, he is a retiree in the New Hampshire system, and there’s no way we would be able to duplicate what he gets from the system on top of the salary. If it weren’t for the costs, we’d consider him for the full-time chief position.”

The town would have to pay Kelly $144,000 a year to cover what he’s making from both his salary and pension. And if he became full time, the town would have to pay a portion of his salary back into the New Hampshire Retirement System, which would be another $40,000 a year.

Kelly said the limitations of being a part-time chief is frustrating for him too.

“Once I hit those 32 hours, until the new week starts, it’s like I’m on the outside looking in,” he said. “It limits me from work I’d prefer to be doing, like seeing people in a less formal setting. Seeing people in instances where they’ re not experiencing their worst moment is invaluable for building relationships in the community.”

At the same time, Kelly said it would be “frankly a little bit of financial irresponsibility” on his part to pursue a full-time role at the department. He declined to elaborate.

Clow said he understands that Kelly’s salary may look steep, but said Kelly has been instrumental in stabilizing the department and helping to rebuild the public’s trust with the department. “You’re not just paying for hours, but a leadership quality,” he said. “Our primary goal is to have that kind of leadership in place so it can carry us forward.”

Prior to Kelly’s hiring as an interim chief in 2014, the department was beset by a series of controversies: Former police Chief John Vellaca resigned in 2014, a year after he was sworn in and was later found to have assaulted his secretary. Former Weare police officer Kim McSweeney resigned in December 2015 facing accusations of abusing Shane St. Onge during a burglary arrest.

Former Weare police officer Ken Cox, who was found to be not at fault in the St. Onge case, was demoted from sergeant to patrol officer after a failed sting operation in 2013 left a suspected drug dealer Alex Cora deJesus dead. The town eventually settled with deJesus’s family for $300,000.

McSweeney is still a defendant in a civil lawsuit against the town brought by former Weare police officer James Carney in Hillsborough County Superior Court, and is a defendant in yet another case brought by former Weare police officer Lisa Censabella against the town of Weare in the U.S. District Court in Concord. Censabella is alleging she was “subjected to constant harassment and social isolation” and wrongfully terminated after six years on the force.

Another former employee, Dawn Wheeler, was given $145,000 in 2016 as part of a settlement after she sued the town for allegedly wrongfully terminating her from her position as an administrative assistant.

The majority of those lawsuits came into play before Kelly was hired, Clow said, and the town would like them to be resolved before hiring a new chief.

“With everything that’s happened since Chief Kelly came on, I think the board feels that everything has been stabilized,” Clow said. “But we’re not a point where we’re able to make a change. ...He’s the right person for the job right now.”

Despite the legal troubles, the department has made strides in regaining the public’s trust, Clow said. For example, voters approved the first multi-year police contract in years in March after flip-flopping between one-year contracts or no contracts at all. The department is three police officers shy of being fully staffed, and Clow said the contract is crucial to attracting recruits.

Another sign was the approval of the purchase of three police cruisers in March. Kelly said the department’s vehicle repair costs crept into the $100,000 range over the last two years; in 2016, voters turned down a warrant to purchase five cruisers. Late last year, the fleet was down to two vehicles, including Kelly’s car, which he said he didn’t use to commute during that time period.

“That was an instance where the town was able to work with the police department so that we could make the community comfortable with buying those vehicles,” he said. “It’s an investment in the community.”

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